With its granitic sentences, measured, but not sluggish, pacing, and a heavy, but not burdensome, sense of foreboding, where the banality of the day-to-day workaday eccentricities of a troubled janitor’s lonely life is recorded with devastating precision, Eugene Marten’s novella Waste might easily have been called “Weight” or “Wait.” Marten’s taut prose—inventorying cleansers, receptacles, bags, containers, etc., as well as cleaning procedures and disposal methods—immediately sucks the reader into a high-rise building’s airless offices and cramped cubicles, underneath fluorescent light’s unforgiving glare, as the blare of internecine office politics, labor versus management gossip, Dictaphone clicks, the cold static of a television’s “three [sometimes four] snowy channels,” and “the movement of air from the convectors, an occasional fax, noise from the street,” rings in the ears.
One might think that mentioning the novella’s startling nods to “A Rose for Emily” and Psycho, would ruin its surprises, but the details of Waste’s strengths lay not beneath a spoiler alert but within its acute attention to language, its profound empathy and understanding for its protagonist, and its underlying critique of the endless cycle of consumption and waste. Marten’s book, delivered in a detached voice, is propelled by carefully-crafted, understated sentences, its slippages into second-person narration giving it a kind of eerie intimacy. Marten is concerned with both life’s interstices and the crevices between and around words, sentences, and paragraphs. Subtle time shifts fill in some gaps in history, motivation, etc., but the reader is allowed to form his or her own conclusion or confusion.
People working in the service industry are often relegated to invisibility; and in most fiction, they work double-duty as servants and as props to add verisimilitude to settings, circumstances, etc. In Waste, however, Sloper, the aforementioned janitor, takes center-stage. Marten gives us extended point-of-view shots of Sloper at work, his perceptions of things, people, responsibilities, etc., and the various strategies he employs, as well as his unintended humor and critique, in passages like these:
Sloper kept his hard tile mopped, and he was good about glass. He squatted on his haunches in front of the lobby doors, head tilted back, and in this way could see every smudge and handprint. The cleaner was a pale green liquid in a plastic spray bottle that you refilled at the mixing center. Sloper used paper towels only—cloth smeared and left lint. He burned off a case a month. He didn’t think it should be so hard to use the door handle, the panic bar, or the handplate, but he didn’t take it personally that they didn’t. Too, you had to figure how busy they were.
Aside from this commitment to clarity, Sloper left the detailing to the women. The edging, the deep dusting, kicking out. It was understood.
The glass cleaner went into one of numerous pouches on the yellow plastic apron strapped to his cart, along with the other spray bottles and cleaning supplies. If pouches were empty you could use them to hold burgers and sandwiches. If a burger or sandwich no longer had a wrapper you used a paper towel from another pouch on the plastic apron. It was okay if a sandwich or burger was half-eaten. Potato salad from the deli in the lobby came in small plastic tubs that would fit into the pouches, as would donuts, bagels, rice cakes, croissants, muffins.
People never finished their potato salad.”
Marten’s prose style while certainly stark and bleak isn’t arid or emotionless and has a dark humor much like Beckett’s. And even in some of its most desperate and grislier moments there’s beauty. Sloper, who “wasn’t much of a reader” or “talker,” who is indeed “a language unto himself,” nevertheless notices “the tracery of blue veins that networked [a woman’s] body just under the skin. Frozen, electric.” Sloper, watching “another building going up across the street,” thinks it looks like
just a skeleton with floor slabs. Tonight it was higher than the moon, you could see the moon right in its middle. They kept the working lights on at night after the construction workers left, blue and deep amber. The stairs were in, you could see them zigging and zagging all the way up and down. Someone was walking down the stairs, all the way from the top to the bottom, from the blue to the amber. Sloper stood at the windows on 10 and watched him every step of the way. He took a step to the side and made whoever it was walk down the moon. He wondered if it felt like anything. It would have been better if whoever it was was going up.
Like the worlds that Beckett creates, Marten’s high-rise is a wasteland, albeit one where fast-food is ordered to go. One of anomic Sloper’s meaningless amusements include playing with a “transparent plastic cube containing three silver balls of various diameter and three loose cups, correspondingly sized.” He was “usually unable to cup more than two of the balls without dislodging one or both.” Here he resembles Beckett’s Molloy who, thinking of ways to vary the sucking stones he carries in his pockets, gazes
at his stones, revolving interminable martingales all equally defective, and crushing handfuls of sand, so that the sand ran through my fingers and fell back on the strand, yes, while thus I lulled my mind and part of my body, one day suddenly it dawned on the former, dimly, that I might perhaps achieve my purpose without increasing the number of my pockets, or reducing the number of my stones, but simply by sacrificing the principle of trim. The meaning of this illumination, which suddenly began to sing within me, like a verse of Isaiah, or of Jeremiah, I did not penetrate at once, and notably the word trim, which I had never met with, in this sense, long remained obscure.
Waste’s interminable bleakness speaks to a kind of pessimism (perhaps “jadedness” is a better word here), and its pervasive sadness, its sense of irrelevance, and its lack of conventional bonds on the one hand and a disturbed and freakish sense of connection on the other, raises questions about consumption, production, and consumerism. Like Beckett’s and Camus’s books, Eugene Marten’s Waste is endgame fiction, but in this case, one that is as much about erosion, absence, and desolation as it is about one man’s insane attempt to find some form of intimacy.
About the author:
John Madera is a writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in elimae, Bookslut, New Pages, The Quarterly Conversation, 3:AM Magazine, Word Riot, and forthcoming in The Diagram. You may find him at hitherandthithering waters (www.johnmadera.com) and editing The Chapbook Review (www.thechapbookreview.com).